Surrealism and Fashion Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

romanticism of man with imagination and the curiosity to attach meaning to inanimate objects spills over in many forms- dreams, art, literature, and of late pervades the space in commercial forms like films, advertisements, fashion exhibitions etc. Surrealism has enamored and consequently influenced intellectual and academic pursuits in the past in all fields- social behavior, politics, religion and culture. The import of psychological realms and psychoanalysis on surrealism has been multivariate. Key historical figures- Marx, Freud, Dadi have shaped surrealism since the beginning of the twentieth century. In modern times, fashion and clothing make use of surrealism to evoke extreme emotions by way of animating the inanimate as well as pushing the subjects (inanimate and women) to the limits of obscenity (over-consumption) and grotesque. An analysis of the travel of surrealism through the times shows that the original concepts continue to have an impact on the thought that goes behind the fashion industry in the present stage.

Surrealism- The Surrealist Object

Surrealism took roots in Paris. Contemporary thinkers like Sigmund Freud, and Marx inspired the highly developed and assimilative intellectual society in the fields of art, politics, fashion, photography, films and other forms that used imagination. Thus, it was through literature and psychoanalysis that surrealism found its way into the different realms of expression. The main premises, which helped build the movement, was that the rational, conscious mind was a hindrance to imagination, and suppressed creativity. They sought to unravel and explore the possibilities through the inherent contradictions in animate and inanimate objects that we come across in daily life. The vehicle on which surrealism movement sought to spread its impact was Abstract Expressionism ("Surrealism Movement, Artists and Major Works" 2015a).

Surrealism is the free expression of psychological extremity expressed through the written word, art, or depiction of the actual though process and output, as explained by Andre Breton in 'Le Manifeste du Surrealisme' in 1924. This formalized the institution of Surrealism. Surrealism expression appeared in fashion, photography, films et al., with encouragement from Breton. It is here that the contradictions of puritanical concepts of surrealism and the modern surrealist movement appeared first. Breton incorporated the surrealist work of Joan Miro into the body of Surrealism (which had a large influence in Abstract Expressions). ("Surrealism Movement, Artists and Major Works" 2015b)

The initial mention, as indeed the coining of the term, "Surrealism" can be traced back to 1917. Guillaume Apollinaire used it the 'Parade' that was co-authored by Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and Leonide Massine. This work was a work of literature, a ballet. Breton reshaped it profoundly. A new group of thinkers, writers, artists emerged to evolve a larger canvas for Surrealism ("Surrealism Movement, Artists and Major Works" 2015b).

The veritable shift of position in the evolution of Surrealism is found in the following observation by Whitney Chadwick, in, 'Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation': "Putting psychic life in the service of revolutionary politics, Surrealism publicly challenged vanguard modernism's insistence on 'art for art's sake.' But Surrealism also battled the social institutions - church, state, and family - that regulate the place of women within patriarchy. In offering some women their first locus for artistic and social resistance, it became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form (however tentatively) to a feminine imaginary ("Surrealism Movement, Artists and Major Works" 2015b)." The quote explains how Surrealism entered the realm of fashion industry. The limits placed on expression by rational thinking were being replaced by tapping the sub-conscious mind. The omnipotence of dreams and its power to relieve people of drudgery helped place surrealism in the fashion and art industry as an epitome of expression.

Though the origins of this avant-garde influence on art form are attributed to the literary work of Dada, the Freudian world of dreams and psychoanalysis and rigidity of social art, making it subjective, objectivity was introduced by relating the inspirational beauty of women. Fashion connected the real objects and the object in mind (though process). Fashion had social and political influences without leaving sight of morality.

Fashion defined beauty driven by desires of the subconscious mind. Desire expressed impulsive sexual instinct to explain 'love' (Mundy 2001). In an apt depiction of juxtaposition which Surrealism brings to fashion, the representation of the sewing machine making a woman is the answer to 'clothes make a man'. Similarly the criticisms of Freudian theories by the modern school of thought were nevertheless incorporated by Ernst's collage 'The Hat Makes the Man'. Thus, in many ways Freud inspired fashion and art. The man here is identified with an object, the hat, which was also, what Freud tried to impress (Leighten et al., 1998).

In art and fashion exhibitions, the Marxian principles of commodity fetish and the psychoanalysis and omnipotence of dream (a thought propagated by Freud) cohabit to produce imagery for the body and intense desire (Leighten et al., 1998). Veruschka is depicted as pathetic and desirable at the same time in Vanity Fair by Adelle Lutz in October 1986 issue. The film, Beauty and the Beast, however provides an antithesis to this premise by seduction of a beauty by an ugly male. Such depiction of beauty and fashion has however been contented by women liberation activists as being apathetic to the sensitivity of woman and her body. Martin, however, rejects the idea of anti-feminism (Drawing Ronal Reagan into the controversy). The depiction of woman (Verschuka) as an object of fashion and style by another woman (Adelle Lutz) places surrealism as the avant-garde influence on fashion. In the postmodernist era, that we live today originality is replaced by parody, which is in turn giving way to reality. The surrealist influence on consumerism is evident in the fashion shows (Leighten et al. 1998).

Richard Martin dwells on the fact that the essence of fashion lies in disengaging the object and the person. The garment is what is beholds, in juxtaposition to the aphormism 'clothes maketh a man'. He depicts his idea by showing a woman being 'sewn', created by a sewing machine (Martin 1988: 15 -- 16). Martin confuses the landscape of surrealism further by blurring the difference between natural and artificial in addition to the existing similarities shown between animate and the inanimate. As Theophile Gautier observed, clothing is now identified with a persona. (Spencer 1969) Martin argued that imagery enticed the customer. Hence Surrealism drives the market and consumerism where the buyer is taken to heights of imagination, in a suspended state of conscious where he fuses the real and the imagined. (Spencer 1969).

Whereas Martin seeks to awaken the consumer through shock and disbelief or entice him through style, Breton considered surrealism as an obscurity in fashion and art. Of note here is the fact that Breton has contradicted with Dali on the same account. Breton was a strict intellectual who sought art for the sake of it and depiction of imagination whereas the post modern surrealist movement broke away into the commercial avenues that gave a wider canvas to express objectivity in art.

A further drift into the commercial exposition of surrealism can be seen later too, in the work of Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott likened an infant to a special clothing that an infant identified with as his mother's representation. The clothing the infant clings to is the metaphor for the mother of the infant. The gradual disrobing is the weaning away of the infant from the mother- an emotional subject depicted by an objective depiction (Winnicott 1971). The clothing, texture, smell and feelings are all coalesced into one act. Thus, clothing ceases to be a mere addendum to the body- it becomes a form of communication (Winnicott 1971).

Almost similar fetishes of spiritual and pagan values were imported from history. The miracles as understood by the Christians of the yore have their roots in the intermingling of interracial traditions and customs that soon became difficult to disengage from each other. The Catholics that traded on the African coasts imported the concepts of witchcraft and superstition. The natural occurrences which were regarded as irrationalism inspired Marx to introduce the concepts of consumerism to a large extent the fetish associated with these customs were equated with commodity. Fetish then is the communicator between the fact and the imaginary. It makes us believe in the false in spite of knowing consciously that it cannot be true. ("Gammon and Makkinen 1994: 445-446). The fetish between the body and clothing can arouse sexual eroticism, though it may also stand for power, social stature and commodity of capitalist consumerism.

Breton explains the terms 'imaginary' and 'real' thus: the intimate relation between the two will dissolve their uniqueness, in the same way that it will blur the distinction between subjective and objective, dream and reality, animate and inanimate (Rosemont 2000). Thus, clothing represented a means of psychoanalytic expression for Breton that were initially expressed by Freud and Marx by their literature and the expression through words. Fashion had come to express…

Sources Used in Document:


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Buchli, V. (2002). The Material Culture Reader - Bloomsbury Academic. Accessed April 20, 2015.

Evans, Caroline. (2008). Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design. Fashion Theory -- the Journal of Dress Body & Culture 12 (2): 237 -- 44. doi:10.2752/175174108X3000067.

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